The Hard-hearted Husband
Timothy Shay Arthur
A sunbeam is a little — a very little thing. It streams through our casement, making the cheerful room still more cheerful; and yet so accustomed are we to its presence, that we notice it not, and heed not its exhilarating effect.
But its absence would be quickly seen and felt. The unfortunate prisoner in his dimly-lighted cell would hail with rapture that blessed stream of light; and the scarcely less imprisoned inhabitants of the more obscure streets of our crowded cities would welcome it as a messenger from Heaven.
It is even thus with the sunbeams of the human heart. Trifling things they are in themselves, for the heart is wonderfully constituted, and it vibrates to the slightest touch; but without them life is a blank — all seems as cold and lifeless as the marble slab which marks the spot where the departed loved one lies.
A gloomy home was that of Henry Howard, and yet all the elements of human happiness seemed to be there. Wealth sufficient to secure all the comforts and many of the luxuries of life, was theirs, and both husband and wife were regarded by their numerous acquaintances as exceedingly intelligent and estimable people — and so indeed they were. The light tread of childhood was not lacking in their home, although its merry laugh was seldom heard, for the little children seemed to possess a gravity beyond their years, and that glad joyousness which it is so delightful to witness in infancy, was with them seldom or never visible.
Life's sunbeams seemed strangely lacking, yet the why and wherefore, was to the casual observer an unfathomable mystery.
Years before, that wife and mother had left the home of her childhood as a happy and trusting bride. Scarcely seventeen, the love which she had bestowed upon him who was now her husband, was the first pure affections of her virgin heart, and in many respects he was worthy of her love, and, as far as able, returned it. Her senior by many years, he was possessed of high moral principles, good intellectual endowments, and an unblemished reputation among his fellow men.
But there was a cold, repulsive manner, at variance sometimes with his more interior feelings, which could ill meet the warm, affectionate disposition of his young wife, who, cherished and petted in her father's house, looked for the same fond endearments from him to whom she had given all.
Proud of her beauty and intelligence, charmed with her sprightliness and wit, the man was for a time lost in the lover, and enough of fondness and affection were manifested to satisfy the confiding Mary, who had invested her earthly idol with every attribute of perfection. But as months passed on, and he again became immersed in his business, his true character, or, more properly speaking, his habitual manners, were again resumed, and the heart of the wife was often pained by an appearance of coldness and indifference, which seemed to chill and repulse the best affections of her nature.
Tears and remonstrance were useless, for the husband was himself unaware of the change. Was not every comfort amply provided, every request complied with? What more could any reasonable woman desire?
Alas! he knew but little of a woman's heart; of that fountain of love which is perpetually gushing forth toward him who first caused its waters to flow: and still less did he know of the fearful effect of the constant repressing of each warm affection. He dreamed not, that the loving heart could become cold and dead, and that his own icy heart would soon be rejected by the devoted being who now clung to him so fondly.
It was but in little things that he was deficient, mere trifles, but still they constituted the happiness or woe of the wife of his bosom.
The loving glance was seldom returned, the affectionate pressure of the hand seemed unfelt, the constant effort to please remained unnoticed. One word of praise, one kindly look, was all that was desired — but these were withheld, and the charm of life was gone.
The change was gradual. Bitter tears were shed, and earnest endeavors to produce a happier state of things were sometimes made, but in vain. Oh! could the husband but have known how wistfully that young creature often gazed upon him as he sat at the evening meal upon his return from business, and partook of luxuries which her hand had prepared in the hope of eliciting some token of approbation — could he have seen the anxious care with which domestic duties were superintended, the attention paid to dressing prettily, the constant regard to his most casually expressed wishes — surely, surely he would have renounced forever that cold, repulsive manner, and clasped to his bosom the gentle being whom he had so lately vowed to love and cherish.
But he saw it not — and felt it not. Still proud of her beauty and talents, he loved to exhibit her to an admiring world — but the fond endearments of home were lacking. He knew nothing of the yearnings of that devoted heart; and while the slightest deviation from his wishes was noticed and reprimanded, the eager and intense desire to please him was unheeded — the earnestly desired word of praise was never spoken.
The first year of wedded life passed away, and a new chord was awakened. Mary had become a mother; and as she pressed the babe to her bosom, new hopes were aroused. The clouds which had gathered around her seemed passing away, and the cheering sunbeams again broke forth. The manifest solicitude of her husband in the hour of danger, the affection with which he had gazed on the countenance of his first-born, were promises of happy days to come.
But, alas! these hopes were but illusory. All that a father could do for the welfare of an infant, was scrupulously performed, but its expanding intellect, its innocent playfulness, soon remained unmarked — apparently uncared for.
"Is he not lovely?" exclaimed the fond mother, as the babe stretched his little hands and crowed a welcome as the father entered.
"He seems to be a good, healthy child," was the quiet reply. "I see nothing, particularly lovely in an infant six months old, and if I did I would not tell it so. Praise is very injurious to children, and you should school yourself from the first, Mary, to restrain your feelings, and utter no expressions which will have a tendency to foster the self-esteem common to us all. Teach your children to perform their duties from a higher motive, than the hope of praise."
A chill like that of mid-winter came over the heart of the wife as she listened to the grave rebuke.
There was truth in the words. Our duties should be performed from higher motives than the approbation of our fellow men; but that little word of praise from those we love — surely, surely it cannot be hurtful. It is one of life's brightest sunbeams, encouraging the weak, soothing the suffering, bringing rest to the weary, and hope to the desponding.
Something of this Mary longed to urge, but her husband had already turned away, and the words died on her lips.
Time passed on. Another and another child had been added to the number, until four bright little faces were seen around the family table. The father seemed unchanged. Increasing years had altered neither the outer nor the inner man — but in the wife and mother few would have recognized the warm-hearted, mirthful girl, who ten years before had left her fathers home, with bright visions of the future floating before her youthful mind.
Whence came that perfect calmness of demeanor, that almost stoical indifference to all that was passing around her? To husband, children, and servants — she was the same. Their comfort was cared for, the routine of daily duties strictly performed — but always with that cold, lifeless manner, strangely at variance with her natural disposition.
But the change had come gradually, and the husband noticed it not. To him, Mary had only grown more matronly, and, wisely laying aside the frivolity of girlhood, had acquired the solemnity of riper years. True, there were moments when his indifference was somewhat annoying. Although he never praised, he often blamed, and his lightest word of rebuke was at first always met with a gush of tears — but now there was no sign of emotion; the placid countenance remained unchanged, and quietly he was told that his wishes would be attended to. Certainly this was all that he could desire — but he would have liked to feel that his pleasure or displeasure was a matter of more consequence than it now appeared to be.
And yet the warm affections of the heart were not all dead. They slumbered — were chilled, paralyzed, starving for lack of their proper and natural nourishment; but there was still life, and there were times when her heart again thrilled with rapture, as the loving arms of childhood were entwined around the mother's neck, or the curly head rested upon her bosom.
But to the little ones, as to others, there was the same cold uniformity of manner, a lack of that endearing tenderness which forms so close a tie between mother and child. Their health, and the cultivation of their minds, were never neglected; but the education of the heart remained uncared for, and the spot which should have bloomed with good and true affection, was but a wilderness of weeds.
The two eldest children were promising boys of seven and nine years old. Full of health, and buoyant, although constantly repressed spirits, they thought not and cared not for anything except the supply of their bodily desires; but with the third child, the gentle Eva, it was far otherwise. From infancy her little frame had been so frail and delicate, that it seemed as if the spirit was constantly struggling to leave its earthly tenement; but her fifth year was rapidly approaching, and still she lingered a blessed minister of love in that cheerless home.
How wistfully she gazed upon the mother's face as she unweariedly performed the many little offices necessary for her comfort — but ever with the same frigid, unchanging manner! How earnestly she longed for that manifestation of tenderness which she had never felt! Even the stern father spoke to her in gentler and more subdued tones than he was accustomed, and would sometimes stroke the silky hair from her white forehead, and call her his "poor child."
But it was the fondness of a mother's love for which the little one yearned, and with unerring instinct she felt that beneath that calm and cold exterior, the waters of the fountain were still gushing. Once, when after a day of restless pain she had sunk into an uneasy slumber, she was aroused by the fervent pressure of that mother's kiss, and through her half-opening eyelids she perceived the tears which were flowing over her pale face. In an instant the arms of the affectionate child were clasped about her neck, and the soft voice whispered, "Dearest mother, do you not love your little Eva?"
But all emotion was instantly repressed, and quietly as ever came the answer, "Certainly, my child, I love you all. But lie down now, and take some rest. You have been dreaming."
"It was such a happy dream," murmured the patient little sufferer, as obedient to her mother's words she again closed her eyes, and lay motionless upon her pillow. Once more she slept, and a sweet smile beamed upon her countenance, and her lips moved as if about to speak. The watchful mother bent over her.
"Kiss me again, dear mother," lisped the slumberer. "Call me your dear little Eva."
None could tell the workings of that stricken heart, as hour after hour the mother watched by her sleeping child; but the dawn of morning found her still the same; statue-like as marble, that once speaking face reflected not the fires within.
Day after day passed on, and it was evident that the child would soon die. She could no longer raise her wasted little form from the bed of pain — but still her deep blue eyes gazed lovingly upon those around her, and her soft voice spoke of patience and submission.
The last hour drew near, and the little sufferer lay in her mother's arms. The destroyer claimed but the frail earthly covering, and even now the immortal soul shone forth in its heavenly brightness.
"Am I not going to my Father in Heaven?" she whispered, as she gazed earnestly upon her mother's face.
"Yes, dearest, yes," was the almost inaudible reply.
"And will the good angels watch over me, and be to me as a mother?" again asked the child.
"Far, far better than any earthly parent, my dear one."
A radiant smile illumined the countenance of the dying child. The fond words of her mother were sweet music to her ear.
The father approached, and bent over her.
"My little Eva," he whispered, "will you not speak to me?"
"I love you, dear father," was the earnest answer, "and when I am in Heaven I will pray for you, and for my poor mother;" and again those speaking eyes were riveted upon the mother's face, as if she would read her inmost griefs.
The physician entered, and, in the vain hope of prolonging life, judged it necessary to make some external applications to relieve the difficulty of breathing, which was fast increasing. The pain was borne without a murmur.
"Do I not try to be patient, mother?" whispered that little voice.
"Yes, darling, you are a dear, patient, good little girl."
An expression of happiness, amounting almost to rapture, beamed in Eva's face, at these words of unqualified praise.
"Oh, mother! dear, dear mother," she exclaimed, "will you not always call your little Eva your dear, good little girl? Oh, I will try to be so very good if you will. My heart is so glad now," and with the strength produced by the sudden excitement, she clasped her feeble arms about her mother's neck.
"Her mind begins to wander," whispered the physician to the father; but there was no reply. A sudden light had broken upon that stern man, and motionless he stood, and listened to the words of his dying child.
But she had already sunk back in an apparent slumber, and hour after hour those calm but agonized parents sat watching by her side, at times almost believing that the spirit had indeed gone, so deep was the repose of that last earthly slumber.
At length she aroused, and with the same beautiful smile which had played upon her features when she sunk to rest, again exclaimed,
"I am so very happy, dear mother; will you call me your good little Eva once more?"
In a voice almost suffocated with emotion, the desired words were again breathed forth, and long and fervent kisses imprinted upon the child's pale cheek.
"My heart is so glad!" she murmured. "Oh, mother, kiss my brothers when I am gone, and smile upon them and call them good. It is like the sunlight on a cloudy day."
"Put your face close to mine, dear father, and let me whisper in your ear. Call poor mother good, sometimes, and kiss her as you do me, now that I am dying, and she will never look so sad any more."
"I will, my precious child! I will!" And the head of the strong man bowed upon his chest, and he wept.
A change passed over the countenance of the little one.
"The angels will take me now," she whispered. The eyelids closed, there was no struggle — but the parents saw that her mission on earth was ended. Henceforth she would rejoice in the world where all is light and love.
The mother wept not as she gazed upon that lifeless clay. She wept not, as she laid the little form upon the bed, and straightened the limbs already stiffening in the embrace of death; but when her husband clasped her to his bosom, and uttered words of endearing affection — a wild scream burst from her lips, and she sunk back in his arms, apparently as unconscious as the child who lay before them.
A long and alarming state of insensibility was followed by weeks of fever and delirium.
How many bitter but useful lessons did the husband learn as he watched by her bedside! Often in the still hours of the night, when all but himself slumbered, she would gaze upon him with that earnest, loving — but reproachful look, which he well remembered to have seen in years gone by, and murmur, "Just one kind glance, Henry, one little kiss, one word of love and praise."
And then as he bent fondly over her, that cold, fixed expression, which she had so long worn, would again steal over her countenance, and mournfully she added, "Too late, too late. The heart is seared and dead. See, little Eva stands and beckons me to the land of love. Yes, dear one, I come."
But the crisis eventually passed, and though feeble as an infant, the physicians declared the danger past. Careful nursing, and freedom from excitement, would restore the wife and mother to her family.
With unequaled tenderness did her husband watch over her — but with her returning health, returned her unnatural frigidity of manner. There was no response to his words or looks of love.
Was it, indeed, too late? Had his knowledge of the needs of a woman's heart come only when the heart, which once beat for him alone, had become a heart of stone?
It was the anniversary of their marriage. Eleven years before, they had stood at the altar and taken those holy vows. Well did Henry Howard recollect that bridal morning. But how had he fulfilled the trust reposed in him? With bitter remorse he gazed upon the wreck before him, and thought of that gentle being once so full of love and joy.
An earnest prayer broke from his lips, and his arms were clasped around her.
"Mary, dear Mary," he whispered, "may not the past be forgotten? Grievously have I erred — but believe me, it has been partly through ignorance. An orphan from my earliest childhood, I knew not the blessing of a mother's love. Cold and stern in my nature, I comprehended not the needs of your gentle spirit. I see it all now: your constant self-denial, your untiring efforts to please, until, wearied and discouraged, your very heart's-blood seemed chilled within you, and you became the living image of that cold heartlessness which had caused the fearful change.
"But may we not forget the past? Will you not be once more my loving, joyous bride, and the remainder of my life shall be devoted to your happiness?"
Almost fearful was the agitation which shook that feeble frame, and it was long before there was a reply.
At length, in the words of little Eva, she whispered, "Oh my husband! My own dear husband! My heart is so glad! I had thought it cold and dead — but now it again beats responsive to your words of love. The prayers of my angel-child have been answered, and happiness will yet be ours. My dear, dear Eva, how often have I wept as I thought of my coldness toward her, and yet all power to show my earnest love seemed gone forever."
"It slumbered, dearest — but it is not gone. The breath of affection will again revive your warm-hearted, generous nature, and our remaining little ones will rejoice in the sunshine of a mother's love. Our Eva, from her heavenly home, will gaze with joy upon those she held so dear."
Another year, and few would have recognized that once dreary home.
Life's sunbeams shone brightly now. Those little messengers to the human heart — the look of love, the gentle touch, the word of praise — all, all were there. Trifles in themselves — but ah, how essential to the heart's life!
Be Gentle with Your Wife!
Be gentle! for you little know
How many trials rise;
Although to you they may be small,
To her, of giant size.
Be gentle! though perchance that lip
May speak a murmuring tone,
The heart may beat with kindness yet,
And joy to be your own.
Be gentle! weary hours of pain
'Tis woman's lot to bear;
Then yield her what support you can,
And all her sorrows share.
Be gentle! for the noblest hearts
At times may have some grief,
And even in a pettish word
May seek to find relief.
Be gentle! none are perfect here —
You are dearer far than life,
Then husband, bear and still forbear —
Be gentle to your wife!